Ask a Mexican

Should I speak Spanish to the Mexicans in my neighborhood?

Dear Mexican: I'm a white, rural, ninth-generation Texan who left the farm and is now a lawyer for a large corporation in one of the largest cities in the state. Maybe a quarter of the clients they assign me speak Spanish, so the company's paying for me to learn Spanish. I'm glad, not only for work-related reasons, but also because I just moved into a neighborhood close to the heart of the city, and 85 percent of the residents in my zip code speak Spanish. I love this neighborhood. Only a few blocks from me are little tiendas, pupuserías, taquerías, botánicas and mercados; all the people who work there are so nice, and all of their products are of excellent quality and price. When I enter the stores, I'm usually the only white guy in the place, and everyone's speaking Spanish to each other.

When I come in, or also when I'm walking around the neighborhood and see my neighbors, how should I greet Spanish speakers? I worry that since I don't know Spanish, if I say "Hola" and can't follow it up with a basic conversation in Spanish, I'll come across as patronizing. And I feel like if I walk up to the counter at the tienda and say, "Hi! How are y'all?" to the clerk and his wife who are talking in Spanish to each other, I'll come across as one of those gringos who wants everyone to speak English to him. Which is more appropriate? I'm hoping to be conversational in Spanish soon (I'm a month into my course and am progressing nicely), so when I reach that point, would that change your answer?

Abogado Blanco

Dear White Lawyer: You can be as unknowing in Spanish as the host of the BBC's Top Gear or fully conversant in all of Cervantes's works, and my answer would be the same: Ditch the "Hola." To not come off as patronizing, to appear at the very least down with la raza and at best someone willing to learn the lengua, greet Mexicans formally by the time of day: "Buenos días" for morning until the early afternoon, "Buenas tardes" for the afternoon until the beginning of the sunset, and "Buenas noches" for nighttime. Doing that will show any wab that you are polite and that you've made enough effort to learn Spanish linguistic formalities beyond the /usted divide. Indeed, it's those little touches that help us Mexis determine whether the new gabacho in the barrio is a good neighbor we can invite over for carne asada on Sundays and marry our brainy daughters off to, or some patronizing hipster looking to gentrify us out of existence.

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Gustavo Arellano
Contact: Gustavo Arellano